In this post we continue our series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.” See additionally the 1989 letter from the Board of Ministry (following the 10-year study) as well as responses from Katherine Hamilton and Mark Novak & Carol Lawson.
It has been a personal pleasure for me to engage with the February 2017 issue of the Covenant Quarterly, as the issue of women in ministry in the Evangelical Covenant Church intersects in several ways with my life and ministry.
I began seminary only months before the decision was made to ordain women at the June 1976 Annual Meeting of the ECC. As I think back on my years in ministry, I am particularly grateful for that 1976 decision. In each of the churches I have pastored, I have ministered with women pastoral leaders. I am married to an ordained clergywoman whom I have had the pleasure of working with as well as witnessing her ministry in other contexts. I was blessed to graduate from North Park with five women in the spring of 1980. I believe this was in a graduating class of forty. In my current role at NPTS, I have the privilege of being involved in the vocational development of gifted women and men for ministry. Most years the student population is close to 50% women.
It is noteworthy that a majority of the students in NPTS’s master of divinity program are men, while a strong majority of students in programs like the Certificate in Spiritual Direction are women. Those distinctions are significant but do not negate the fact that the composition of the current student body is vastly different than it was when I was a student. This marks the fact that real progress has been made in the past forty years. I have the joy of observing gifted women enter our seminary community, expand their knowledge base and ministry skills, develop their pastoral identity, and depart for the purpose of serving in Christian ministry.
There is, however, grief to be recounted. It was a personal delight for me to observe at our most recent Midwinter Conference one of my female classmates, Mary Miller, receive the honor of being named distinguished alum of NPTS for 2017. Mary has served the ECC well as an exceptionally gifted servant leader. As a colleague and friend, Mary has been a blessing to me over my decades in ministry. Honoring Mary also serves to honor those other early women in ECC ministry. It also causes me to remember one classmate who was also exceptionally gifted for ministry but had to choose to serve in another denomination because of the way things unfolded for her. That memory illustrates the impoverishment to our denominational body when inadequate provision is not made for a major change in our denominational culture. As it has frequently been noted, it was both curious and unfortunate that the same assembly that voted to ordain women also voted not to embark on a strategy to promote and educate concerning the matter.
Kelly Johnston’s biography of Jean Lambert was a particularly apt way of unpacking the concept of the pioneer. Along with Mary Miller and the other four women I graduated with in 1980, Jean Lambert was certainly a pioneer in for women in ECC ministry. I had not been aware of the letter Jean had written in 1989 on behalf of the Board of the Ministry. It was and is a strong letter, and it describes well the pioneer role of our earliest female colleagues in ministry. As I was glad for the honor bestowed on Mary Miller at Midwinter, I was reminded of what a good thing it was that Jean Lambert was honored by the ECC in 2006 (Irving C. Lambert Award for excellence in urban and ethnic ministries) and NPTS in 2008 (honorary doctorate). She established solid ground for women pastors and theologians in the ECC. I was personally struck by some of her work referred to in Johnston’s article.
Lambert’s contribution to Amicus Dei opened my eyes to the richness of “Mission Friend” terminology. This work was a major influence in my Doctor of Ministry work at Hartford Seminary (1986-1991). One of the things Lambert did well was to show how Pietist essentials, such as the “priesthood of all believers,” offered a path toward a less hierarchical, more egalitarian church. These essentials are given strong expression in the third article of this issue of the Quarterly. Denise Kettering-Lane reminds us that even though the early giants of Pietism likely did not have women ministers in mind, their theological principles are given rich expression through the reality of women in ministry.
A a Covenant, we are fortunate that each decade since 1976 persons have offered careful analysis of the ECC’s progress in living into its vote. Lenore Knight Johnson offers fair and thorough insights on where we stand at year forty. Some of her suggestions for improvement I find particularly helpful. It is a given that we are congregational in our polity, and I think the advantages of this far outweigh the disadvantages. Yet there is no doubt that congregational polity has in large measure limited the suitable placement of many gifted clergywomen. Knight Johnson helpfully points out major ECC events, such as Midwinter and CHIC, as available opportunities for the ECC to draw attention to gifted women preachers.
I would add our Covenant camps to that list. This was brought home to me recently when my daughter Chloe came home from a youth retreat at Covenant Point and enthusiastically reported what a great speaker Ramelia Williams was at this event. As the father of a sixteen-year-old young woman, I celebrate that she has had ample opportunity to hear gifted women preach, including her mother. It is my hope for Chloe and others like her that each decade going forward will mark dramatic progress for our denominational family when it comes to women in pastoral leadership.
Timothy L. Johnson, graduated from North Park Theological Seminary in 1980. After twenty-five years of parish ministry, Tim returned to NPTS in 2005 to serve as field education director (currently also interim academic dean). Tim’s wife Kari Lindholm-Johnson is an ordained Covenant pastor who is currently the artist-in-residence at Swedish Covenant Hospital. They have two children. Gabe is a sophomore at North Park University; Chloe is a sophomore at Von Steuben High School.